20th Memorial Senshu International City Marathon – Report by Michelle Van Looy

Having just completed the Masterton marathon in October 2012, forms came out inviting two Wellington resident marathon runners to apply for the role of Wellington Ambassadors to Sakai City.  I made it through to the panel interview and then to the draw where the Mayor, Celia Wade-Brown pulled out both Stephen Day’s and my name.  My coach, Chris Speakman, prepared a 12-week training programme for me to follow over the summer months in preparation for a winter marathon!  Fortunately I persuaded a friend to train for the New Plymouth marathon so I had a training partner.

I was pleased Stephen Day decided not to pull out of the trip after late injury.  The Sakai Society was still keen to continue as an Ambassador even if he ended up only lining up at the start.  It was nice to be able to share our experiences, photographs and facebook posts!

From the moment we landed in Japan, via Kansai airport, to the time we departed, we were treated as honoured guests, both by the Sakai City Staff (a special thank you to Minoru and Nathan), as well as the Sakai Sister and Friendship Cities Council.

It was great to spend time with the runners, Alfonzo, Doug and Jess (Doug’s wife).  There was a great camaraderie between us throughout the trip.

The day before the marathon we had a tour of the course where I made a mental note of the turning points as well as the notorious bridges.  We met Kinzo from the Sakai Association who presented us with welcome signs; similar to the large banner they would hold up during the race.

We met Mayor Takeyama and other Sakai City staff at the council offices where we exchanged gifts and business cards.  We received a nice glass paperweight with the tumulus engraved into it.  Hopefully the Mayor liked the Hobbit book.

The opening ceremony and reception in the evening began with meeting the mascots each city had (which explained the cartoon characters on the marathon literature).  After a formal opening and speeches, the invited runners and elite athletes were lined up on stage and introduced.  I managed to find some suitable carbs of rice and noodles and plenty of water ready for the race the next day.

Race day. We travelled to the start of the marathon by bus and where we were taken to a waiting area.  It was great to get to talk to some of the other runners from Australia and America.  The weather was perfect; not much wind, fine although a little cool (2 degrees Celsius).  Steve decided to start but wasn’t sure how long he’d be able to run.  10am, call for runners.  Before the start there were more photos and a chance to meet my host family briefly.  It was amazing being at the front of nearly 5000 runners.  Steve had a good view being so tall!  Not sure I would have been that keen of I was in the middle.  

My race went to plan; I caught up with a guy from Sydney who I ran with for the next 15k.  The support we were given along the route was fantastic.  There were people cheering, playing taiko drums and heaps of school children waving flags.  There was plenty of water and food out on the course (including boiled sweets!)  The last 7ks were undoubtedly the most enduring and this is where I was thankful for all the support I got at the end.  I completed in a time of 3:22.27, a new pb.  The Mayor and supporters congratulated me and handed me a towel and cup of miso (soup).  Steve, Doug and Alfonzo all finished in respectable times (even though Steve walked the last 12ks, incredible!).  

We were spoilt again with a delicious meal and entertained with some magic tricks by Mr. Kotani.

The following day was packed with some memorable experiences.  We visited Mikunigaoki Kindergarden where the children had the opportunity to ask us questions, sing, perform a play and practice serving a traditional tea ceremony.  After a lunch of Takoyaki (octopus), we turned our hand at Wagashi making.  The Wagashi Master was amazingly talented and produced some beautiful cakes.  We then had an opportunity to buy some gifts (We all ended up buying some rather sharp knifes to take back with us!)

In the evening we attended a welcoming ceremony held by the Sakai/Wellington/Berkeley Sister Friendship Cities Council.  We were overwhelmed by everyone’s kindness and generosity.  Alfonzo, Doug and myself gave our thank you speeches and Stephen decided to sing a traditional Maori Waiata.  A traditional Japanese song, “come on spring” response followed this. We got to meet our host families properly for the first time.  Toshiko and Moris were extremely kind hosts during my stay.  I was grateful for the opportunity to immerse into a different culture for a few days.  I learnt a lot about the traditions, homes life and food during my stay.

Tuesday it snowed!  Apparently it only does this a couple of time a year in Osaka.  Wrapped up warm, I was ready for a day that was filled learning about the history and traditions of Sakai; including a traditional tea ceremony and a visit to the tomb of Emperor Nintoku (3rd century A.D. Tumulus).

Wednesday was a free day with our host family which we spent visiting Kyoto.  We had a full on day travelling on trains and taxis, visiting three temples including the famous Golden Pavilion.  I enjoyed seeing the school children dressing up in traditional kimono as well as taking time to answer a few questionnaires for other school children on trips.  

My experiences in Japan have been very positive and I feel very lucky to have been given this opportunity of a lifetime.   I must say a huge thank you to Kevin, Christine and Aiko for all their organisation and support leading up to the trip.  Also to the resident photography and translator, Minoru (I’m looking forward to the photos!)  I will try to stay in touch with all the new friends I have made both in Japan and Berkeley.